Rethinking Media: Innovation, Adaptive Leadership and Work Avoidance

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(Anthony Tran/Unsplash)

In February 2020, my Rethinking Media column, entitled The Litany Against Fear, introduced William Bridges’s model of transitions in the process of innovation or change. A few weeks later, the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe and we collectively got to live his Three Stages of Transition: Death (Good-bye arena concerts, live theatre and sports), the Neutral Zone (staying at home while policy makers figured out what we should do to contain the virus) and a New Beginning (Hello life on Zoom/Meet/Teams, masks, directional arrows on store floors and standing 6-feet apart).

The pandemic is not only killing loved ones, it is also ravaging our industry. Overnight in the first weeks and months, lucrative advertising deals fell apart. This pandemic impacted broadcaster services indirectly in many ways, like the cessation of live events, shut-down of businesses that normally advertise, live-location promotions and audience measurement using paper tools. All organizations had to change in order to adapt and for business to pick back up. While many broadcasters recovered during the summer, many are still struggling.

The silver lining? Digital initiatives have never done better.

Destination Human’s Angie Dairou introduced me to Bridges’s model of transitions at the most auspicious time – December 2019, mere months before the first lockdown. This Christmas, Angie introduced me to the concept of Adaptive Leadership as modelled by Ronald Heifetz in two books: Leadership without Easy Answers and Leadership on the Line. These works furthered my quest to understand the diffusion of innovation, how change happens, and why people behave as they do when introduced to change.

Heifetz believes that there are two types of leadership. The first is Technical Leadership, which is when you know the required steps to solve a problem and then follow them. This is the leadership most people intuitively learn, even mimic, from leaders they’ve followed. It’s a great role for operational leaders and technocrats: You’ve pre-determined the precise desired outcome and the exact steps to it, and you control the team’s actions so that they achieve it.

A parallel trend, Apprenticeship of Observation, was identified and coined in 1975 by Dan Lortie in Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. Adults – including future teachers – “learn how to teach” by observing teaching daily during their formative years. By mimicking those modes, new teachers will almost certainly use methods ill-suited to current challenges and opportunities. Teacher-training programs must shake that wrong-minded, but understandable certainty so that their trainees can become adaptive teachers.

In times of change, old methods almost always fail. Technical leadership doesn’t work when creativity or flexibility are needed; because technical leadership methods suppress, rather than foster, creativity. We’ve probably all seen what happens when problem-solving teams are locked into rigid or outmoded solutions: Failure. Regardless of prestige, past successes or remuneration, a technical manager would need to tap into a deep understanding of their own abilities and biases, and add a good dollop of humility, to become successful adaptive leaders.

The allure of the old, however comforting, easily blinds us to the need for change. Applying old thinking, ideas, policies or methods to new problems never helps an organization weather the stages of transition or get to a new beginning. Change requires adaptation. Adaptation requires openness.

Heifetz’s second type is Adaptive Leadership, which is required when you don’t fully understand the problem and don’t know how to solve it. This requires a leader to let go of the reins and distribute the responsibility for finding the solution(s) among team players and stakeholders. This is a risky step: by sharing control, leaders risk losing power, credibility and good standing with team members, colleagues and a governing body (like the Board of Directors). They can be humiliated, seen as incompetent, not a visionary and not really leading. For someone used to technical leadership, this can be terrifying.

Back to my column from a year ago: Fear is a powerful emotion that rears its ugly head in curious ways. Having spent a year deepening my meditation practice and studying new findings in neuroscience, I see how ferociously fear eats reason. It is a strong emotion created to ensure survival. It arises quickly in the face of danger, when if you rationally considered what is happening and what the best response might be, you could be dead before your first full sentence. Fear makes you act in ways you never imagined. To think that we are rational beings is ludicrous. Don’t believe me; revisit Byron Sharp’s work on How Brands Grow.

Heifetz posits that because change and adaption can be so risky, many (if not most) people shy away from it, applying what he calls work avoidance. There are many different ways this can manifest in organizations. Think of those colleagues who sit on projects, promise they will deliver and never do. Think of organizations that would rather discontinue a service than adapt it to their clients’ changing needs. Think of team members who show up without having read important materials as assigned. Think of the boss who hides behind Human Resources instead of directly addressing problems a team member is having, or that the team is having with one of its members. Why do these things if you value your job and want to do it well (as sociologists tell us most people do)? Fear. Of being wrong. Getting reamed out. Being seen as arrogant or mean or stupid or out-of-touch or incompetent. Avoid the whole scenario, our lizard brain tells us, and run!

Assigning all the responsibility for change and adaption to the leader is a great work-avoidance tactic. By doing so, you place a project’s failure firmly at the feet of a single individual – (usually) not yourself and not the team. Heifetz calls this Scapegoating, and scapegoating is the reason I took a coaching session with Angie.

As a change leader, I’ve attempted to understand resistance to change through a rational lens, applying academic theories from various disciplines including business as well as the social, psychological and political sciences. Most of what I’ve felt in resistant, from teams following my lead and the governing forces that engaged me to lead, has been passive resistance. Going limp in protest, if you will.  Sometimes the resistance fed a bullying response, as if intimidating me could make their discomfort go away.

I wrote a year ago that resistance based on fear is not rational. It follows that framing an irrational condition rationally is bound to fail. I have learned that as an adaptive leader, it is incumbent on me to see, acknowledge and address emotions that come up when change is involved. Heifetz proposes methods to accomplish this that closely align with the precepts of Design Thinking and Mindfulness: Empathize. Be introspective. Be patient. Show compassion.

Leaders create Holding Environments where people can properly discuss and solve a problem, Heifetz explains. They must know when to stoke the fire to make people uncomfortable, and when to let up so people can absorb the change and deal with it emotionally. This is hard work, not for the faint of heart. It requires of leaders skill and willingness to deal with other peoples’ pain, fear, sadness and anger – openly and gracefully.

Compassion also is not enough. In my experience, a shared understanding of the problems and a well-designed, well-timed, well-defined and well-communicated plan (strategy) to address them will help alleviate fear, but will not eliminate it. Over time, delivery of the plan and its desired outcomes will build the trust and credibility that slowly replace fear with confidence.

The creativity used to justify work avoidance and to mask fear can be impressive. It has become acceptable lately, even at the highest levels of society, to deny complex problems rather than do the hard work of acknowledging, defining and addressing them. Adaptive leaders must chip away at this, using any and all of the above-mentioned emotional and strategic tools to shatter these protective shells.

How does an adaptive leader excise scapegoating, perhaps the most corrosive work- avoidance tactic, from the organization’s response repertoire? I’ve observed some epic scapegoating attempts. We’ve all seen it: a team falls short of its goal and the leader is fired, no matter the circumstances or an assessment of progress actually made. In professional and college sports, it’s almost a given – a coach or manager is fired as a symbolic cleansing after failure – which goes back to scapegoating’s ancient origins. An adaptive leader must learn how to share accountability along with responsibility. No easy task, especially in an organization where the norms are authoritarian and hierarchical.

This tension is widespread in our industry. We have hard work to do to innovate under swiftly and significantly changing circumstances. We can get to work, sharing responsibility and accountability, or we can resist and cede our decisions to others. Let’s make the courageous choices together and lead the way.

*Thank you Rhonda Rosenheck (my incredible editor and a retired teacher-educator) for the paragraph on Apprenticeship of Observation and the example of scapegoating in sports.

Have you observed work avoidance lately? Contact me at eblais@statsradio.com.